As we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century, scientific developments are progressing at dizzying speed. They inform every aspect of our lives and we are better-informed about science than we ever have been.
Choosing developments that have significantly affected our everyday lives is a challenge. However, if we break them down into the areas which have the most daily impact, we can clearly identify key breakthroughs.
A collaboration between four institutions in the USA and Germany, along with two pharmaceutical companies has discovered Teixobactin, a new antibiotic without detectable resistance. Scientists and Pharmacists have not been able to produce a new antibiotic in 30 years, so this development promises a path towards developing medications that can combat the development of resistance. This directly affects us all; as antibiotic resistance is currently growing and increased bacterial resistance to the positive effects of antibiotics seem inevitable.
Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple are forging ahead with the machine learning approach to Artificial Intelligence. Rather than coding communicative strategies into products, this approach allows the machine to learn from accrued data. It uses ‘neural nets’, enormous networks of machines that approximate neural patterns found in the human brain.
In itself, this is not a new idea, but the game-changer in recent years has been the development of the processing power to enhance performance. This principle of ‘intelligent’ learning is already used to recognize faces on Facebook and allow smart speakers like Alexa to respond in a sophisticated manner.
These machines are even able to provide medical diagnoses. Machines that can think and adapt are the stuff of dystopian sci-fi scenarios, but they are here. That is both marvellous and disturbing. Who knows, these ‘self-learning’ machines may supersede the capacities of human beings in the not-too-distant future!
Engineers at the University of California are working towards technology that can recharge smaller modules within batteries. This technology could make energy storage much more configurable, promote safety, simplify maintenance, and eventually remove the need to use fossil fuels. These recharging modules would allow you to buy an electric car separate from the battery pack. If you could lease (rather than buy) the battery pack, the cost of the electric car would be considerably reduced, making it more attractive for the mass market.
Furthermore, researchers at the same University have developed a new technology for lithium-ion battery anodes, which cuts down charging portable electronic devices to 10 minutes. Given the importance of rechargeable battery technology for anything which has an impact on our daily activities, this rather unsung area deserves recognition as a truly significant development.
Today, we have mobile communication at the swipe of a screen. This technology has developed in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. Fitness and well-being apps, augmented and virtual reality software, social media channels, chat groups like WhatsApp and video conferencing tools, are ubiquitous nowadays.
The advantages of lightning-fast communication exchange are convenience, speed and mobility. These technologies are constantly developing, enabling us to use our mobile devices for a multitude of daily tasks and activities.
Demographic studies show massive growth posing a major threat to the sustainability of cities and the quality of city life. Mass urbanization can lead to social unrest, which can, in turn, prevent cities from being environmentally sustainable and economically successful.
Recent developments provide hope that such challenges can be tackled. New models for urban sustainability are emerging in many cities around the world. These include greater incentives to save energy, reduction of consumption and protective steps for overall environmental health. All of these are driven by scientific innovation and will hopefully contribute to future levels of wellbeing for city dwellers and visitors.
We harness science for the betterment of humankind. The potential for positive impact is enormous. However, we also need to be aware of the financial, ethical, and social implications of the power of scientific progress. Progress is good. We cherish it. It can make the impossible a reality. Nevertheless, perhaps we love it for its own sake. We should always bear in mind the adage ‘be careful what you wish for’.